“It’s easier to accept 613 mitzvot than to accept me,” quips comedian and inclusion advocate Pamela Schuller. Schuller, who is 31 and has Tourette syndrome, tours the world showcasing the humor and poignancy she finds inherent in living with disabilities and practicing Judaism. In a show entitled, “What Makes Me Tic: Comedy, Disability and Inclusion,” she will bring her unique perspective on life to Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley on Sunday, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m. New England Yachad is sponsoring the event.
What was it like growing up with Tourette syndrome?
I grew up in the Midwest and was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome when I was in third grade. By sixth grade my symptoms went from mild to severe. Shortly after, I was asked to leave school and then my synagogue. I know it wasn’t about me, per se. Teachers just didn’t know how to teach or conduct services over me. They didn’t know how to access resources or be creative about my situation. Even today a lot of synagogues would struggle with someone who barks and makes noises. A lot of what I’m doing is to make sure that if a synagogue wants to be more inclusive and find a way to truly celebrate someone, I can point them to resources. That’s why I do what I do.
How did things turn around for you at Jewish summer camp?
Camps in general are comfortable with creativity. My camp focused on embracing me and finding what I brought to the community. I’m sure they were frustrated when I was barking at night and nobody could go to sleep. But it never felt like they were collecting information so they had reasons to send me home. It felt like the director and the counselors were collecting information to get creative and embrace me. I was encouraged to talk about Tourette’s and ended up doing some stand-up to explain it. Comedy helped me approach subjects I didn’t know how to tackle otherwise.
Another turning point for you was attending boarding school, right?
- 1/22/2017, 7:00 pm
Boarding school was the first place where I loved the way I learned, and the way my brain thinks differently. I wasn’t afraid to try new things. As an example, it was like a puzzle to get my brain to tackle chemistry in a fun, creative way. Then another time when I was in math class making a metronome-type sound, my math teacher, who was also a musician, called out my name. I thought he was going to ask me to leave the class. Instead, he said: “Pam sounds like a metronome. Let’s use that sound and write a song about math.” We actually wrote an entire CD about math, and I was a welcomed accompaniment in the background. That was an instance where even when it seems that we’re doing something for just one person or a few people, if we’re willing to look more deeply we’ll find it’s often beneficial for so many people.
I also found improv in boarding school. Improv showed me the first thing I loved about myself. In theater you get on stage to be someone else, but in improv you get on stage to be yourself. My barking and flailing became a part of the scene.
You have a unique perspective on inclusion and creativity in Judaism.
As a community we have always embraced creativity. When the temple was destroyed, we had to do things differently to continue to be Jewish. The more I work with communities, the more I bring it back to creativity. This led me to the “aha moment” of when God chose Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt despite his speech impediment. God provided Aaron to support his brother as a mouthpiece should Moses need it. Aaron was an accommodation. That’s God getting creative, and that idea was transformative for me. You can lead with your strengths, but also be honest and upfront about your challenges. When I talk to a kid struggling with a diagnosis that makes him or her different, I point out that being different means you don’t always look at things head on. You can look at some things sideways, upside down or choose to look at things with a different lens. By the same token, I can’t give a prescription to a community to be creative or more inclusive, but I can give them tools and ideas.
What’s the role of comedy in your life now?
Comedy has become an incredible tool to facilitate conversation. If I don’t do a show for a week, it’s like not going to therapy. I need it. If I have a stressful week I have to get on stage and do a show to remind my brain I’m capable of performing. The moment I get on stage, it centers me like nothing else does. And sometimes when you have a disability, funny things just happen—the more I remember that they’re funny, the better the chances that I don’t get depressed or frustrated or angry. But sometimes I have to fight back. In graduate school I had extra time on tests, and one teacher said my accommodation was really inconvenient for her. I was fuming for days, but then I realized it was hilarious. I wrote back: “I’m so sorry this is inconvenient for you. Growing up with a neurological disorder was equally as inconvenient for me.”